Eyeing a career change from Engineering: Am I being reckless?
August 29, 2014 9:19 PM   Subscribe

I recently graduated and I've been working as a Jr. Engineer for a few months now. I realize now that this is not a career/field I want to be in and have been strongly thinking about going back to school to get a Computer Science degree. The problem is that I have 35k in loans from my previous degree and I need to make a decision soon. Am I being reckless for wanting to do a career change so soon?

Hello everyone,

I recently graduated with a degree in engineering and I've been working as a Jr. Engineer for a few months now. I've always felt like engineering wasn't right for me (at least my field specifically) and working a few months into my job has concreted this sentiment. I've been falling asleep on the clock, dreading waking up in the morning and I can't wait to get out once it's time to go home. After some self-reflecting I realized that I've always been forcing myself to study in university and never found engineering to be enjoyable. I also realized that my old passion in high school (programming and tech-related things like computer hardware) was what I should have gone into. In fact, the course I enjoyed the most in university was the one programming course in my first year.

I've been eyeing going back to school to get a degree in Computer Science as I also want to learn the theoretical side to programming. The problem is, I have about $35,000 in student loans that I need to pay off from my previous degree on top of rent/car insurance/gas. My current job provides a steady paycheck to pay off those loans but I know I'm being underpaid for someone in my position while working longer hours than most of my friends. My irregular work schedule (8am to 7pm, Monday to Thursday) prevents me from taking any night classes and I haven't been able to find any weekend courses in my area. I have strongly been thinking about quitting my job, moving back to the city and working part-time/going to school part-time. I have to make a decision soon as my 5 month "probation" is almost up and given the project-based nature of my company, I need to make a clean break. At the moment, I have a few thousand dollars in savings I could temporarily live off of. If I go back to school my loans/interest build-up would freeze until I graduated again but I know that I'll be adding on more debt for another degree.

Others have suggested taking another job in the same field but the job market is kind of dead in my area (i.e. Ontario) and it has become apparent I don't want to do engineering (Chemical, Environmental, project, etc.) I hate my life right now because of my job (the stress bleeds into every aspect), I'm in the middle of nowhere and I'm filled with regret. I want to act fast before I become complacent with where I am all because of a steady paycheque - I've watched too many people fall into this cycle while mitigating their stress with things like drugs and alcohol.

Am I being too reckless by doing this? Do you have any suggestions or personal experience with a drastic career/educational change like this?
posted by This Is Reality to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I want to act fast before I become complacent with where I am all because of a steady paycheque - I've watched too many people fall into this cycle while mitigating their stress with things like drugs and alcohol.

It can be stressful and soul-crushing to just be working for payday, but, from personal experience, it is *much more* stressful and soul-crushing to be scrambling and scrambling and *not* getting that paycheck every two weeks. Please don't quit your job until you have figured out what is going on with school or the career change to comp sci, and are either starting classes or have another job lined up or both. It's also much better, even in the long term, if you work your first job for at least a year, and preferably two.

I know you're in a bad spot right now, but don't jump from the frying pan into the fire if you can help it.

Am I being too reckless by doing this? Do you have any suggestions or personal experience with a drastic career/educational change like this?

Yes, it's too reckless to quit a job without having anything lined up to do next, especially since you have financial responsibilities.

I've done the major-life-change thing, and have to say that I now greatly regret not following through with my post-college job/plans. Straight out of college, I was working as a legal assistant and had a ~80% scholarship to a pretty good law school -- but the legal assistant job felt soul-crushing and I felt imprisoned, so I quit after about six months and never sent in my security deposit to secure my spot at the law school. It's about six, seven years later now and I'm in grad school thinking yet again about taking the LSAT (only now I'll be in my early thirties while in school instead of my early twenties and am not sure if that would be doable even if I tried for a part-time program), pretty broke/still in debt, and worried about trying to break back into white collar work while pushing thirty.

At the time I hated every second of working as a legal assistant, but looking back, I was actually in a very good position and I learned so many skills from that job without even realizing it -- those skills have also been useful in getting jobs since. I think that the post-college adjustment was extremely hard and I didn't appreciate the good things I had, and acted extremely recklessly. Though I still understand my reasoning, my naivete really did set me back in life. So please be careful.

The comp sci idea is likely a great one, but you've got to think in terms of longer time horizons. You're looking ahead a couple/few months. You have to be looking ahead a couple/few years. If you want to be in a comp sci program in a couple years, definitely work toward that! But working toward that doesn't mean throwing everything you have away (and some of what you have might not be great, but other things that you have, like a paycheck and a do-able job in the field you're trained for, really are worth at least trying to appreciate).
posted by rue72 at 9:44 PM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you don't think this job is for you, try working out short and medium term plans. For example, you could enroll in a night school course at a technical college and build your technical skills. You could look at how to structure your project management experience (perhaps taking some courses), so that you can transfer that to a new job. I would look at how to leverage this experience for your desired career in computing. Look at the professional development available. Offer to help with technical projects. Take a night school course (might as well make sure you really want this). Plan to enroll in further coursework next fall. Set aside $500 a month for the next 7 months, $200 for something fun and $300 for counselling. (See if you can leverage employer benefits for counselling.) At the end of the year, you will have an emergency fund and a "fun" fund so that you can take a trip or pay for a semester of tuition or whatever you fancy. The counselling will help you learn more about your values and what you want in a job and career and perhaps help you ward off depression and anxiety and anything else that may be affecting you. In 7 months, you could enroll for summer semester in a computing science course. By then, you could have completed some information interviews, taken two night school courses that transfer into the program, and gained a year of relevant experience, as well as personal insight. You would be an asset to a company that needs your knowledge of chemical engineering or whatever your expertise is in.

It's seven months until you have a year of experience. Gamify it. Give yourself some rewards. Hourly, daily, weekly, monthly. Whatever it takes. Use the above to create an action plan. In seven months, when you enroll in your comp sci program, you will have a wonderful story to tell future employers about how you realized that you were in the wrong field, but you stuck to your guns, looked at how to meet your employers' needs and grow as an individual and redirect your career while furthering your education. You can assure them that you are not a fly by night employee and that you're someone who plans and has done a lot of personal work to make sure the next job and employer are the best fit for all.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:54 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Is programming something that your current employer values? Would they be willing to let you have an educational sabbatical and rehire you in another role? You would probably need a bit longer with the company though.

I went through a similar crisis after realizing that the oil industry job I was employed in was not something that I wanted to do. I was fortunate that the (large) company I worked for offered an (unpaid) educational sabbatical. This meant that I could take a year off to go back to school (I did a Masters in programming) and be rehired by the same company but in a different, software engineering branch. The security of knowing that I had a job to go back to (assuming I got my degree) made the decision much easier.

Financially my situation was little different from yours (although I had college debts, I was the recipient of an unexpected pot of money that was just enough to support me through that year), however if you believe that the new career you have in mind can pay off whatever debts you incur (which in my experience it will), there is nothing wrong with manageable debt, particularly if you are happy in your career. Your company may even provide some financial support to help with the course.

I do know that this was one of best decisions I ever made since it enabled me to get a career I enjoyed and opened up a lot of options for me.

Definitely though, as rue72 highlights, don't quit your job without having your next step lined up and fully financially planned. It would be far safer to stick the current job out for another year or two if that will leave you better off financially, and also with an experience and reputation that will have long term benefits (you may not enjoy the job, but you should get the most out of it while you are there).
posted by oclipa at 11:09 PM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not all "night school" is literally at night. I would do three things:
1. Stay in this job another year. I know it seems overwhelming, but stability is not that easy to find and so important. It will go fast if you spend your free time working on your next thing.
2. Figure out if there's some other part of Engineering you can pivot to with a certification instead of starting over with a new degree.
3. If you're really done with Engineering, find the path of least resistance to what you really want to do. Like finding an accredited online program that you can work on on Fridays. A full bachelors in Computer Science is probably not necessary if all you want to do is code.
posted by bleep at 11:11 PM on August 29, 2014

If you can't take night classes, you should be able to find something online... Classes, if not a degree program.

And yes, too hasty. I'll also suggest that pulling it together and being a great employee and getting an awesome reference in a year or two will serve you REALLY well.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:11 PM on August 29, 2014

With that much debt over your head, how would you finance going back to school? Could you get into a CompSci master's program without a related BS?

Check out Kahn Academy and stick with that for a while to see if programming really will be something you enjoy. Also, I hear, but have no direct experience, that Linda.com is also good.

You're not in any position to make drastic changes. Try reducing your work hours. What's the reason for the crazy hours?

Are you open to moving away from Ontario?
posted by reddot at 12:18 AM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can totally teach yourself how to get interesting things done with programming given the wealth of free information out there currently. Where there's a will, there's a way.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:03 AM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

First jobs are where you pay your dues. You need to pull it together and be a better employee. By all means, start looking for a new job, cast about the country for one. You don't have to stay where you are.

If you're that convicted about not being an engineer, get a different full-time job. Perhaps you'd do well in a Graduate Leadership Program. Bell Canada has one, I'm sure there are others with other companies.

For MANY corporate jobs, you only need the degree, mine was in English, but I learned how to be a Data Network Engineer and a fine salesperson at the phone company.

As for returning to school, no. Learn programming in your off hours or on the job if you have free time. Most companies will subsidize classes that are relevant to your job. Even tangentially.

Student loans will keep you enslaved, work like a fiend to dispatch them. I promise you, there are people who majored in Computer Science who feel just as hollow and trapped as you do.

Don't think so narrowly about your options, you have MANY.

Good Luck.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:46 AM on August 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Entry-level programming jobs do not necessarily require a CS degree. And I don't mean a tiny minority. For employers looking for mathematical knowledge and technical background, your Engineering degree will often "count" - half the junior developers at my first job had various Engineering degrees, not CS. I also know a ton of developers who learned via some combination of self-teaching and structured non-university classes (ie, a weekend workshop here, a weekly meetup there).

Programming is not a field that you need credentials to get into. It is a field you need skills to get into. And for most entry-level positions, you can build all the skills you need on your own time with a little diligence and passion. Yeah, there are "CS degree only" jobs, but not that many, and an Engineering background will get you through the door for many of those. If you're not happy with your current career, spending your evenings working on open-source projects, civic hacking, etc, and building up a github account as a portfolio, will be much more time-and-cost-effective than going back for another formal degree with commensurate debt.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:09 AM on August 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

(My background: CS degree, 7 years as a developer, now a project manager working with developers, all in the US)
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:10 AM on August 30, 2014

Nthing that you do not need a CS degree to get into programming. You need skills and experience, which can be gained via a variety of free and low cost methods.

User groups/meetups are always a great place to start. Among other things, they are an invaluable source of guidance for newbies.

Programming related conferences and workshops are also good, often low cost options. Most of these will have training tracks where you can learn something new in a weekend. Like the meetups, they also provide the extra added benefit of opportunities for networking.

Also, volunteering for an open source project is a great way to get experience in a way that fits in best with your schedule. If you don't know where to start looking for a project, I recommend checking out OpenHatch.

And of course, there are tons of free tutorials and other resources online, for example Code Academy. I suggest exhausting those avenues before you purchase more training.
posted by jazzbaby at 7:09 AM on August 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you based on a mining site or something? That's not for everyone for sure. I know people at all levels who say they won't do it ever again, but they're still in their fields.

But bear in mind that a change of boss, commute, hours, office/site environment, company size, mix colleagues, etc etc - hell, even something stupid like if your desk is at a window! - can make a huge difference to how happy you are at work. Even if your role remains exactly the same. Get some resumes out there over the coming months and see what happens. Bank a paycheque and make some contacts in the meantime. Try to get a routine of after-work exercise and hobbies and things going, however minimal given your long days, so you don't feel like your job has taken over your life. Junior and grad roles are often stressful and confusing no matter what field you're in but they get easier.

I'm not saying definitely don't go after a second degree but you sound like you're panicking and in full grass-is-greener mode. You need to make this decision with a clear head. Take some time to make sure you are not just running away from something but running towards something you could really do for a number of years, that you talk to people in the role/location you envision, that you take some of the online options people are suggesting above and really do like it, that you select the right course and know where the course can get you and so on.

Good luck!
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:00 AM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I totally agree with the people above who say to hang in there for a bit longer: pay off your debt, gain experience, study on the side, look for opportunities within the company, and plan for possible changes in a year or two.

It could well be that your job is overly demanding and work conditions less than ideal but it could also be that you're still adjusting to this job in particular and post-college working life in general. My first few years of teaching also involved crazy hours like that and, while I still work a lot, I have more experience and have gotten better with work-life balance. (And friends in other friends have noted the same, like one scientist friend who had the same sort of realization rue72 had, although it took her changing careers and living abroad to realize that her previous jobs were OK but that she had really just wanted a different location and/or avocational changes.) The cool thing with engineering is that you can switch projects, positions, and locations frequently throughout your career (or at least more frequently and easily than in many other fields?!) but the more experience, the better. Plus, you'll really be a free agent once you pay off the student debt, which I bet you could do in a few years of really focused savings.

That said, I am going to guess that you have already worked REALLY HARD to get to where you are now. I saw a previous post of yours about looking for internships back in 2012. You must have gotten one because you've graduated and now have this job, kudos!! It sounds like, despite your long work hours, you now have the change to really start cultivating of your life outside of work, which is awesome (if admittedly a bit daunting when you're so used to working your butt off in school and so focused on the next move!) After those first few years of working, I realized that I was great at being a student and hard worker but needed to get better at enjoying my free time. What do you like to do to relax? Go on hikes, watch stuff online, hang out in bars, study programming, volunteer with like-minded people? Maybe you already have a life outside of work that you love but reflecting on what you'd really like to do there could be positive, too. You've worked hard to get here and deserve to celebrate and rest on your laurels, a little bit at least!! You can do more studying later, too; lifelong learning is a passion of mine and I've explored different options as I've advanced in career, although I've seen my interests and overall professional goals change slightly over time and experience.

There are popular stereotypes of most professions -- I know there are of teachers and of engineers as well -- but I was pleasantly surprised to see how truly diverse people's lifestyles are outside of the workplace (of course!), even in a small town. It might also help to connect with more of your colleagues or people in your professional organization to learn more about their work histories and then a bit about their passions outside of work. Doing so could give you some ideas about what to do next career-wise as well as give you some hope for how your life outside of work can eventually look. Best of luck to you!
posted by smorgasbord at 10:05 AM on August 30, 2014

"The grass is always greener"

When my senior coworker dropped that cliche on me a few years ago, I was a bit pissed. I had just put in my two weeks, and I'm sure he was just sore to lose me...or so I told myself.

Between then and now I have told myself those words every single time I have switched jobs. They have lost meaning as a cliche, and are now more like a prophecy. When I have lows, I tell myself those words, the grass is always greener, every job has lows. When I have highs, I tell myself 'this too will pass, the lows are coming, just you wait, every job has lows'

I'm not trying to diminish your desire to change fields. You can totally become a programmer without going back to school, the fact that you have a degree is sufficient. I know math and physics majors who code at the same company I do, for example. Its really common in this field. Sure, I know more about P/NP, and the halting problem then some of them...but its kind of a dark secret in the field of programming. Outside of algorithm analysis, most programmers don't make much use of the theoretical side of our profession on a day to day basis.

On the other hand, really, a job is a job. Some jobs are especially terrible, yes, definitely. Usually this is less related to the role, and more related to the people one is working with. I am confident there are barista's who love their job and the life it enables for them. There are also professional skateboarders nursing injuries right this moment who wonder if maybe they should go back to school before their bodies give out.

One thing to think about, if you are making a good living, and if you live frugally enough, you can actually retire quite early. Engineers make a good living, and if you save every penny you can today, in <2>
Working to live is a way better arrangement than the alternative. Best of luck.
posted by jalitt at 12:58 PM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Coding is a field that's in demand, and open to anyone who can demonstrate the skills. You don't need to get a second bachelor's degree, or any other credential, really. An engineering degree plus demonstrated programming skills is credible enough. I've seen people from diverse backgrounds--law, math, and business--switch into programming and get well-paying jobs through self-directed learning, personal projects, and coding bootcamps.

You can start right now by teaching yourself programming on the side. You have Friday through Sunday and nights to do this. Read intro to programming books. Work through free online courses. Start a small project of your own, so you have something to build your skills with and show potential employers. Read up on the theoretical side of computer science. Maybe there's some coding you can do at work as part of one of your projects there.

A challenge for you is that many jobs and educational opportunities will be limited to major tech hotspots like SF or NYC, while it sounds like you live in the middle of nowhere. The companies that will be most open to hiring you are located in cities, and will be less traditional companies like startups. Big companies, or non-tech companies that employ programmers, are going to be more likely to want to see a degree.

If you can manage to move, you can attend coding bootcamps like General Assembly or Flatiron School. These tend to cost $10-20K. From what I've seen, they're good ways to get a foot in the door at a tech company, but are completely not necessary if you can pick up the skills. They'll teach you how to make a CRUD app in Ruby on Rails, or an iPhone app, but these are things you can totally do on your own. That said, they can help if you need a jumpstart. My feeling is that being $50K in debt isn't that much different than being $35K in debt, but you'll have the benefit of actually liking your work, which is worth an expense that in the long run is not that huge.

I disagree with the posters who advise hanging around at a job yo hate until you pay off the debt. It's not like your career aspiration is low-paying or unrealistic. You've already demonstrated technical skill and dedication by getting an engineering degree. If you were going to quit engineering to become an actor, that's one thing, but we're talking about a field that can pay six figures a few years out. Waiting just delays the inevitable, and it only gets harder as you get older. You owe it to yourself to find a way to do what you like.
posted by PartOfThisCompleteBreakfast at 10:09 PM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was coming in to say what partofthiscompletebreakfast just said. You really don't need a second undergrad degree, your engineering degree is techy enough for most companies as long as you have the coding skills. There's also the risk you hate CompSci too, and you really REALLY don't want two unwanted BScs on your CV in three years' time. Employers don't like career students who seem to be trying to collect the set. There is a word for it - 'diplomatosis'. I know of people with 2-3 degrees in closely related areas which they studied back to back (for visa reasons), and they are looked at weirdly by employers, who dismiss them as too academic and not practical, with no real life work experience.

I know that as a recent graduate you are used to the idea that the only acceptable way to learn a skill is by studying it at Uni. Lots of people in academia have this perception and universities encourage it, but it isn't true for most jobs - you either have the skill or you don't. You can self-teach as people have said. Get a portfolio together. If you feel like you need a boost/some structure, look at distance learning options. In the UK there are loads of distance learning compsci modules (open university, Manchester, Leicester) which are run by solid institutions and will take overseas students, but I bet there are Canadian universities offering similar things. Take a whole MSc if you want to, you probably meet the entry criteria already. But don't collect undergrad degrees.
posted by tinkletown at 4:02 AM on September 1, 2014

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